Many power gamers focus on offense, that is, how to inflict the most hurt on the enemy. But as a player whose characters have died just a little more than somewhat too often, I can vouch for the value of fighting death over fighting enemies! I think survivability is too often ignored ... until it is too late.
Although the game offers myriad ways to go on offense, in Dungeons and Dragons, defense boils down to just three areas of focus: Armor Class, Saving Throws, and Hit Points. I'll be devoting separate screeds to each of these (yes, another muti-part series), but let me touch on some high points.
Maxing armor class is a game of stacks. You want to pump up your AC, but bonuses of the same type do not add together. So you have to find ways to stack bonuses of many different types -- mostly from magic items and class abilities. The big question here ... armor or no armor? You can seek to max your AC wearing it or not. Each path has challenges, which I'll tackle in screeds to come.
Maxing your saves is less about stacking, because the game does not offer as many different kinds of bonuses to saving throws. Instead, the strategies here are multiclassing, race selection, feats, a few magic items, and a few class abilities.
Maxing your hit points is hardest of all, because the game offers very few ways to boost your hp, but there are a few tricks to reveal -- like using the Clerical Luck Domain's reroll on your hit dice. And if you look at damage reduction as a form of extra hit points, then the game does have some fun tricks there too.
At the top of this screed, I joke that the best offense is a good defense. But think about it. If an enemy casts a spell on you and you save, it is as if the spell had been wasted. If an enemy swings at you and misses, it is as if your foe had just stood there doing nothing. You made your foe waste a round ... as a free action, since you are still able to act normally. Having a great AC or a high save bonus is like casting a quickened daze that has no hit dice limit.
Okay, that's an exaggeration. A foe might miss with one attack but hit with others. A spell might force a save for half, or affect others of your allies. Nonetheless, attacking a target who has a high AC can be a real exercise in frustration ... and while your enemy is wasting attacks on you, your allies are ripping them to shreds.
That's also why, at the uppermost levels, casters tend to shy away from save or fail spells. Instead, they focus on spells that allow no save, or that have a save for half or partial effect. High-power foes consistently make their saves, and casting becomes just too frustrating.
Imagine that you are fighting a Tank with AC30 and a Raging Barbarian Power-Attacker with AC15. Are you going to waste time trying to hit the tank who is only plinking away at you anyway? Or focus fire on the great-ax-swingng maniac who already took out George in two hits? In this way, a high AC becomes a deterrent in itself.
If you're a mage, you'll focus your fort save spells on the mages and rogues, and your reflex save spells on the fighters and clerics. Monks? The ones with the godlike saves? Let the fighters deal with them!
Against intelligent foes, the tank is the last to fall, because the low-hanging fruit is easier to pick, and the faster you can take out anyone, the fewer attacks will be made against you. In D&D, you are as effective at 1 hit point as at full hit points. Bringing all your enemies half down is a lot worse than bringing half of them to zero and below!
So do not neglect your defenses. Put some thought into survivability, and for once it'll be you left standing when everyone else is dead. What a nice change it will be to finish a game session and not roll up a new character!
This is part of an extended series on Survivability in Dungeons and Dragons.